LA PAZ – Bolivians settled in for a tense, and possibly long, vote count as results trickled in from Sunday’s high-stakes presidential election meant to put an end to political turmoil following last year’s annulled ballot that resulted in leftist President Evo Morales’ resignation.
Six hours after polls closed, barely 3% of all ballot boxes had been counted, officials said. Adding to intrigue, publication of two exit polls were withheld after private pollsters said they didn’t trust their own survey results.
Bolivians have long been accustomed to quick preliminary results in presidential elections. But after allegations of fraud and violent protests marred last year’s ballot, newly installed electoral authorities have been appealing for patience, reminding voters that they have up to five days to declare a winner.
“These are days that require maturity from each and every one of us,” interim President Jeanine Áñez said shortly after polls closed following a peaceful, mostly incident-free day of voting.
Bolivia, once one of the most politically volatile countries in Latin America, experienced a rare period of stability under Morales, the country’s first Indigenous president who resigned and fled the country late last year after his claimed election win was annulled amid allegations of fraud.
Protests over last year’s vote and later his ouster set off a period of unrest that caused at least 36 deaths. Morales called his ouster a coup and a non-elected conservative government has ruled ever since.
Sunday’s vote is an attempt to reset Bolivia’s democracy. All seats in the 136-member Legislative Assembly were also being elected.
“Bolivia’s new executive and legislative leaders will face daunting challenges in a polarized country, ravaged by COVID-19, and hampered by endemically weak institutions,” said the Washington Office on Latin America, a Washington-based human rights advocacy organization.
Voting appeared to be peaceful Sunday, with long lines at some polling places but little of the hustle and bustle of past election days. Voters appeared to be wearing masks and following physical distancing restrictions.
But it may be days before Bolivians have a good idea who won. The country’s Supreme Electoral Court announced late Saturday that it had decided unanimously against reporting preliminary vote totals as ballots are counted. The court said it wanted to rely on the slower official count and avoid the uncertainty that fed unrest when there was a long halt in reporting preliminary results during last year’s election.
“The people have an admirable civic spirit and that’s valuable in a country that has had to repeat its electoral process,” said Francisco Guerrero, a member of the observer team sent by the Organization of American States.
The early results reported late Sunday, which included tallies from Bolivians voting at embassies abroad, favored former President Carlos Mesa, the strongest of a number of conservative candidates trying to prevent a return of socialist rule. With less than 3% of ballot boxes counted, Mesa, a former journalist and historian, had 56% and former Morales Economy Minister Luis Arce was second at 33%.
Morales, who was barred from running, issued a statement from his refuge in Argentina urging his backers not to be provoked into violence, urging them to patiently wait for the results.
“The great lesson we should never forget is that violence only generates violence, and with that, we all lose,” he said.
To win in the first round, a candidate needs more than 50% of the vote, or 40% with a lead of at least 10 percentage points over the second-place candidate. A runoff vote, if necessary, would be held Nov. 28.
The election was postponed twice because of the coronavirus pandemic. On a per capita basis, few countries have been hit harder than impoverished, landlocked Bolivia: Nearly 8,400 of its 11.6 million people have died of COVID-19.
Overshadowing the vote is Morales, who led Bolivia from 2006 until 2019 and was a key figure in the bloc of leftist leaders who held power across much of South America. He was barred from running for the presidency or even the Senate by electoral authorities following his ouster.
But from exile in Argentina, he took aim first at electoral authorities, for their last-minute decision to eliminate the quick count results, and then on Sunday private pollsters who hours after voting ended had yet to publish promised exit poll surveys.
“They’re hiding the big triumph of the people,” he said on social media, providing no evidence to back the claim.
Morales chose Arce, who oversaw an extended economic boom, as his stand-in for the Movement Toward Socialism party. A win by the party would be seen as a victory for Latin America’s left.
A boyhood llama herder who became prominent leading a coca grower’s union, Morales had been immensely popular while overseeing an export-led economic surge that reduced poverty during most of his rule. But support was eroding due to his reluctance to leave power, increasing authoritarian impulses and a series of corruption scandals.
He shrugged aside a public vote that had set term limits, and competed in the October 2019 presidential vote, which he claimed to have narrowly won outright. But a lengthy pause in reporting results fed suspicions of fraud and nationwide protests broke out.
When police and military leaders suggested he leave, Morales resigned and fled the country.
Áñez, a conservative senator, proclaimed herself president and was accepted by the courts. Her administration, despite lacking a majority in congress, set about trying to prosecute Morales and key aides while undoing his policies, helping prompt more unrest and polarization.
She dropped out at as a candidate for Sunday’s presidential election while trailing badly in polls. That gave a boost to Mesa, a former journalist and historian who governed Bolivia following the resignation in 2003 of former President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada amid widespread protests.
Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman in Medellin, Colombia, contributed to this report.